The late Alec Guinness and I have something in common: we both owe a little debt to G. K. Chesterton’s fictional character, Father Brown. I’ll talk about my debt here, and I’ll talk about the debt Guinness had to the character at the end of the post.
When I was a kid, I loved the Encyclopedia Brown books by Donald Sobol. Each book was a collection of mini-mysteries. The inspiration for the character was obviously Father Brown, about whom Chesterton wrote many short stories (he never wrote a Father Brown novel). When I wrote my own series of Bill the Warthog mysteries, I flagrantly ripped off Sobel’s Encyclopedia Brown. I think that sort of makes Bill the Warthog the grandson of Father Brown. (Though nothing has ever topped the original Chesterton stories. Start with “The Blue Cross” and continue from there.)
But we don’t usually do TV churches, we do movie churches. Back in 1934, a version called Father Brown, Detective, starried Walter Connolly as the priest. Germans made two films, Das Schwarze Schaf (The Black Sheep) in 1960 and Er Kann’s Nicht Lassen (He Can’t Stop Doing It) two years later. But really, only one film has done justice to the character of Father Brown, and that is 1954’s The Detective starring Sir Alec Guinness as Father Brown.
An officer from another district informs them that Father Brown is, in fact, a real priest ,“I think you’ve got the genuine article.” They release him (the police can’t imagine a real priest being a thief).
Father Brown thanks them for their hospitality. “It’s been most interesting. I’ve never been in a cell, except a monastery cell.”
So Father Brown goes to see the man truly responsible for the crime, a man named Bert. Brown tells him that he is greatly disappointed in him for being a thief, but even more disappointed in him for being such an incompetent thief. “You should consider honest work,” Father Brown says -- and gets him a job as a chauffeur for a rich widow.
Father Brown has one valuable item in his church, a cross that belonged to St. Augustine. (I would question the provenance of the object, but everyone in the film accepts the genuine nature of the item.) Brown plans to take the cross to a gathering at the Vatican, but the police warn him that the notorious thief, Gustave Flambeau (Peter Finch), will try to steal the precious object. Brown is excited by the opportunity to meet the famed thief and hopes to help him find redemption.
We get to see Brown use his powers of deduction in the film, often to recognize Flambeau while in disguise (What priest would order a ham sandwich on a Friday?), but even more, we see Brown use the power of empathy to understand the thief. Brown explains, “I try to get so far inside a man, I can feel his motives and become a criminal without actually committing the crime.” He also says, “The more you hear other people, the more you know yourself. The more you know yourself, the more you know other people.”
That’s why I’m giving Father Brown our highest Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples.
Oh, and what did Sir Alec Guinness learn from the character of Father Brown? Guinness was raised in the Anglican church, but was essentially an atheist. Paying Father Brown opened him up to the possible goodness to be found in Catholicism, and he eventually became a convert himself.